The idea to interview Coach Aleksandar Coh was brought to me by Matthew Brandt. Matt is the co-founder of the IndoorSpecialist team that became Saris-The Pros Closet, and now Saris – No Pinz. Matt has been eracing at an elite level since 2016, before racing on Zwift was a thing, and also acts as the Social Media Manager for his team Eat DIRT. You will find Matt’s ZwiftPower profile here. The following is how Matt presented the suggestion.
“Generally, when you see these guys in eracing rise up in the ranks, it is race race race! Guys race themselves to fitness. With James, there has been this steady rise over the last year. People haven’t noticed as much because he trains, whereas other top names race to fitness. When you drop people in races, win them, etc., people take notice faster than someone out training.
I didn’t really know or pay attention to him until the last few months. When I did notice his name and heard people talk about how he has come up in fitness the previous three seasons of WTRL, I went to his Strava, looked at his workouts, and just had this thought, “Wow, this dude is legit.” From there, you start looking at his workouts and where those are coming from, which leads back to Alex.”
A fine introduction. Enjoy this chat with James Barnes and his Coach Aleksandar Coh!
Tell us a bit about yourself, Alex. Where do you live? Family life, What do you do for fun? That sort of thing.
I live in Finland (but come initially from Croatia), which is about as far from a warm climate as you can get. When it doesn´t snow, the summer here is awesome because days are sunny, not too hot, and very long.
I am married to a beautiful woman, and we have two boxer dogs which, as you probably know, are a good breed when you want a ton of exercise. Both are rescue dogs, as well.
I love riding on Zwift as my work is so time-consuming, so Zwifting is just convenient and efficient. The roads in Finland are super flat, and I love climbing – any climb. Here you are hard-pressed to find anything longer than 2 mins.
In the summer months, long sunny rides are my favorite. During the winter months, I do loads of Zwift racing and charity rides. I ride for cancer charities mostly, but I always pick a different type of project.
For example, this year, I rode for Tomi Jaakkola, who did an Ironman distance event (full-distance) with his daughter, who suffers from Rett syndrome. He is an amazing example of how strong people can be in difficult times.
We raise good money always. The next project is on Jan. 16th, and it will be an Everesting ride for a cancer foundation called “I Ride For Cancer.” Everyone is welcome to join. Follow me on the Companion app and give me a shout if you want to join. It will be a meetup event (Zwift was unable to set up a formal event).
What is your cycling story?
I started cycling as a kid, mostly to ride to tennis practices and later to basketball practices. I joined a few local races (XC MTB), and people said I was talented and should try racing more and leave the other sports, which eventually I did.
Soon after that, I switched to road races and did pretty well at the municipal and national levels. I loved racing on rolling roads and any climb up to 20 mins as it suited my physiology well. I also weighed 6 kg less, about 74kg.
I have no idea what my FTP was as we didn´t use power meters then. We didn´t even use helmets as they were considered unnecessary weight and unmanly, haha. I also went to school simultaneously but still competed any chance I got and had some pretty nice wins.
In 2016 I had a pretty severe accident coming off a mountain road in a race at 70 kph, hitting a tree and landing 40m below, luckily into a meadow. It left me with significant nerve damage and imbalances on my left side which eventually led to a career in bike fitting.
Nowadays, I only race on Zwift as I need to minimize the risk of falling and also because I often struggle in the Spring here with all the dust because I have asthma.
Tell us about your professional background. When did you know you wanted to be a coach? What did it take you to become a well-respected endurance sport professional?
I knew something was wrong in coaching (professional cycling teams aside) when nearly every coach I had buried me into volume and intensity. With one in particular, I ended up recovering six months from overtraining syndrome.
After that, I started studying, reading every book I could find, and testing the methods on friends and family. It was about 18-24 months before I took on my first client, as I wanted to be 100 percent sure my methods worked and brought results. I also started offering a money-back guarantee to every athlete I took on if they considered my work quality inadequate.
I use the same money-back guarantee in bike-fitting for the same reason. After my accident, I found that the quality of the service was not very good out there, and I wanted to do better. I also loved the challenge of solving puzzles in both jobs – it kept me interested and motivated in a way that none of my other jobs ever did.
You could say bad experiences have led me into this life that I absolutely love. There is no more incredible feeling for me than seeing my athletes progress and smash goals they previously thought unattainable.
My focus in coaching is not just workouts. It is a holistic approach that includes nutrition guiding, mental support, race tactics, customized plans for each athlete, and constant analysis from day to day with frequently modified plans. Remember, these guys have day jobs, and stress levels vary from day to day. Doing a hard workout or race in a stressful period depletes hormones and significantly drops a racer’s performance.
What it took for me to get where I am is years of hard work, never accepting anything for granted, and developing proprietary methods for coaching cyclists and triathletes. I am still learning and improving because sports science never stops, and to stay on your level, you have to keep grinding and working hard.
Why is working with a coach vital for you, James?
Working with Alex is much more than just a coach who dishes out workouts and expects you to see results. He provides detailed feedback, and you can have discussions with him about each aspect of your riding and training.
He helps me with so much more than just intervals – nutrition, planning, fitness, and mental strength. It would help if you asked him about the “Coach has been Drinking” workout. That one is a proper mental workout! He has also created an excellent environment for his athletes to grow and support each other.
It´s a horrible one. 😀
I designed it while drinking whisky as the ultimate fitness test. So far, nobody has completed it. (one of the pros did but they don´t count – even he said it´s horrible).
It is a mix of Z2, Z3, Z4, 1-2-3-4-5 min power, VO2, and resistance to fatigue. It´s 2.5 hrs with a TSS score of 220. That tells you a lot 😀
When were you first introduced to interactive virtual cycling platforms, and what was your impression at the time?
I got an invite for Zwift beta testing around 2015. I thought it was a pretty cool idea but didn´t think much would happen of it (I was pretty wrong :D).
There was one route on Zwift, the Watopia hilly, and it was 9 km. You got bored pretty quickly, and there were no smart trainers around yet. There were maybe 5-10 cyclists online at any given time, no social events, and so on.
It was very different from the app we know and love these days. At that time, I didn´t really like training indoors. I mainly did it to hit the hard intervals and rode all winter outside here. The cold harmed my knees, though, so I switched to mainly indoors for the following winter, using Zwift, and here we are. Now I am a proper Zwift junkie 🙂
Find Alex’s ZwiftPower profile here.
James, How did you find out about Alex? You both started Zwifting during the Beta days. Did you know about Alex then?
I first noticed Alex when I started racing and joined Innovation. He was someone I would look up to and chase. Because as you know, the only way to get stronger is to race stronger riders and push yourself further and harder. I have known Alex and kept in contact since the Beta days. We have ridden a few WTRL TTT together in the past.
At what point did you realize that there was something there and that you would need to dedicate your knowledge and expertise toward training esports athletes?
I believe it was around two years ago that I realized there was a market for specific Zwift training plans. The racing was quite similar to cyclocross but with even more top end and sharp short accelerations. Also, the tactics have changed with all the draft dynamics upgrades over time.
Zwift has offered free plans, but it is challenging to design a quality training plan for everyone. I thought it to be a good starting point for beginners and an introduction to structured training.
What percentage of your athletes are involved in esports? How many specialize in eracing?
All of them except the two pros I coach. They´re simply not interested, but they have the option to be out in the sun 365 days in the year, so I can´t blame them. Sometimes, when the weather goes sour, they hit the intervals I give them just listening to music.
When did you start working with your coach, Aleksandar Coh? Did you have a different coach at the time? Why did you make the change?
I think it was just over three months ago, a short time before the final selection for ZRL and Zada test submissions.
I knew that change was needed if I wanted to take my riding and performance to the NeXt level. Guidance and motivation from someone who can help better prepare me and my body make a massive difference.
How does coaching an esports athlete differ from a traditional cyclist?
It requires less endurance training as races are mostly 45-90 mins. There are longer ones, but in official esports races, that is about the time it takes to complete one.
Workout intensity and structure vary based on our goals at the time (same in esports and IRL cycling). With esports, one essential thing is to keep the equipment in check. We constantly check the dual power and keep track of the calibration, knowing the numbers we are hitting are correct to avoid unnecessary issues with Zada.
Zada is brilliant at keeping the sport honest. In training, we also frequently do the ZADA test on top of everything else. It is a brilliant workout and helps us have relevant data year-round.
What is your feeling about ZADA and the testing requirements? Do you enjoy the tests? How about when your coach asks you to do them as a structured workout?
Man, that new Zada test is a monster. If you enjoy the tests, you are not going hard enough. You should basically fall off the bike after this test. It closely resembles a 4DP test.
Editor’s note: What is the 4DP test?
This hour-long test measures your performance across four separate maximal efforts to create a comprehensive 4-Dimensional Power Profile, assign you a rider type, and personalize the power targets in your workouts.
I enjoy these tests because you have to push yourself and discover a whole new level of hurt. When Alex asks me to do something similar, he usually hides it in a workout, so you have no idea it is a test until you are knee-deep in its suffering.
Are there any training and performance aspects unique to esports? How do you train your athletes to maximize their performance in eracing?
Generally, when I take an athlete, the first month is spent testing and learning what kind of cyclist they are. What their strengths and weaknesses are and determining areas of improvement.
I use four different fitness tests (I can´t say much more in detail without giving away too much). Still, we test all performance markers, short-term power, maximum aerobic capacity, steady-state power (FTP), and high-intensity recovery.
From these tests, I build a plan to make them a better, more efficient, and all-around capable cyclist as on Zwift, the race routes vary significantly, and you need to be ready to compete on almost any course to do so well.
We discuss the tests and keep track of progress and performance while frequently modifying the plan as they get stronger or when things get in the way of training. It is this approach that makes all the difference. As time-consuming as it is, it brings results. That is all that matters to me.
How do the demands of esports differ from traditional racing, physically and mentally?
The demands of esports are different from traditional racing. In some ways, it’s mentally easier because you don´t have to worry about crashing. Many highly talented cyclists out there are just too nervous for group riding or simply don´t want to risk crashing because it might affect their income (surgeons, for example).
Physically it is not very different. An esports race is basically like the most brutal 45-90 mins of a longer road race, so you need to be well adapted to those types of efforts to do well.
Despite what everyone thinks, your cyclist type is not forever. You can change many aspects of your physiology and become a much more all-around cyclist than you think. What it takes to get there is a coach who knows what he´s doing.
The demands are precisely the same, but you condense a 3-hour outdoor race into a 60-90min race on Zwift. Preparation, both physically and mentally, are the same.
There is a pack dynamic for sure. That is still there and affects racing massively. Removing the crash factor allows you to move that focus and energy into reading the race and be more tactical. But this does not make esports any less demanding than IRL racing.
What is the essential bit of advice you would give an athlete who wants to excel in esports?
Train smart, sleep well, focus on recovery after strenuous efforts. Put effort into your nutrition, hydration outside of riding and on the bike, and adequate race fuelling. If these things are suboptimal, you will not be where you want to be in competitions.
Do not race more than 2-3 races in a week (keeping in mind there need to be easy days in between) as that is a surefire way to get a performance drop over time which will require time off the bike.
What is the best bit of advice that Alex has given you that has made you a better eracer?
Recovery and efficiency. Add those into your routine, and you will see your racing and performance increase. I was typically racing a lot and not working on much because I could get away with it. I could see the difference it was making after the first two weeks.
James credited you with his success when asked during our eracer interview series. What type of athlete was he before you started working together?
I started working with James a little over three months ago. James was your classic Zwift rider. He was racing too frequently, 4-6 races a week, sometimes two back to back without regard for nutrition, sleep, or quality fueling on the bike.
James is a proper specimen physiologically – with a VO2 of around 76 and good all-around ability on various terrains. However, he didn´t have aerobic efficiency and an excellent top end. That means that once he would go hard, his heart rate didn´t drop as he only had Z1-Z4-Z5.
James has been brilliant in following the plan and executing his workouts, keeping the discipline on sleep, nutrition, and recovery, and the results show. Please look at his Strava and see he recovers faster than anyone after strenuous efforts. He has brilliant all-around ability now, proper sprint, and his racecraft is one of the best in the business.
I am so proud of him for trusting me from day one and for his discipline in training, which has led to his success in the Premier League. It is where a good coach can take you. Before we started working together, he had a poor recovery after going too hard. He simply didn´t have fresh enough legs, in the end, to contest for wins in big races.
The training also focused on shuffling the lactates in higher zones, so he produces less for any given effort while also clearing them faster, increasing his glycogen storage. Hence, he has more fuel in the muscles, and his legs are fresher for the end.
In numbers, he gained 24w on his already high FTP and lower heart rate throughout the zones. For example, he´s riding at tempo now with a 12 bpm lower heart rate.
How would you describe yourself as a cyclist before you met Alex? What type of rider did you want to be?
Typical Zwift racer. Race and ride too much. It was either full speed or Z1/2 with Coco. So there was no real benefit or growth—just fatigue and suffering without a chance of recovery. I wanted to be one of the top racers on Zwift and be in the mix racing with the top 10.
Do you feel that you were making any training or performance mistakes before working with Alex? Were you racing more often, prioritizing nutrition, sleep, recovery, and fueling?
For sure, I knew I was neglecting many areas, as previously mentioned. I was racing too much, not focusing on nutrition, not recovering enough, and not working on weaker riding areas.
During our previous interview for the eracer series here, you mentioned that esports and becoming an elite eracer has been a goal of yours since the early days of Zwift. Was that a factor in your decision to partner up with Alex?
It was a significant factor. Because I knew I would have to step up my training and preparation to help make that natural progression. You can only get so far on raw talent and luck.
I have learned a few things about training through my years of riding, but nothing compares to the knowledge and know-how Alex provides. He is a product of his own work and ethos. It was an easy decision to pair up with Alex and follow him.
When did you decide as a coach-athlete team to focus on esports? Did you feel that James had the potential to be elite?
He has done quite a bit of testing in the past, so I knew James was a diamond in the rough from the start. I used to drop him in races whenever I wanted, but it’s safe to say it´s not the case anymore. I knew he could be one of the best in the Zwift, and the scary thing is, he will keep improving. He is nowhere near his plateau.
How did you know that he was the right man for that job and that he knew what he was doing?
We had many long discussions about various topics relating to cycling, and I was not aware of a few holes in my cycling that he pointed out. It was an easy choice for me because of his history, reputation, and feedback from his other athletes. I knew it was the right choice.
What innovations in the coaching and performance of esports athletes do you anticipate in the future?
I am not sure what the other coaches are doing, but I have made my plans, and I think overall, the training methods will change to accommodate the requirements of esports. I hope there will be an even better quality field out there as that´s what we all want to see, fast, relentless racing.
I think drivetrain efficiency (waxed chains, clean mechanical moving parts, CeramicSpeed, or Kogel bearing upgrades), but some teams like Next are on top of this, for example.
What innovations in technology, training, or equipment do you anticipate or feel would improve esports in the future?
I am looking to see where this market has evolved in the last few years. An example is the range of trainers that are now available for use. This trend will continue and the technology that surrounds training, indoor cycling. Who knows what will come in the NeXt few years. Hopefully, it’s incredible.
How has working with Alex made a difference in achieving your goal of becoming a top-level esports athlete?
A big focus of ours has been efficiency and management. Now I can recover faster than ever during a race or an effort. My heart rate falls like a stone. Before, it would just stay level throughout the race. I get to the end fresher and stronger than before.
Just those few things show how much I have improved as a rider. I could bore you with numbers, but I think the results from the past season at ZRL PL talk for themselves.
How is Alex different from other coaches you have worked with or know? What sets him apart from the rest?
As I mentioned, his wealth of knowledge in training and every other aspect involved makes him different. He is a product of his own words.
Also, the level of feedback is fantastic. Not to forget again the awesome crew Alex has built. We all support each other and egg each other on to do better.
Is it essential for you to have a coach who is also an esports competitor and considers himself a Zwift junkie?
I would not say that is entirely true, but seeing someone excel in the platform you also want to improve helped make my decision. But for me, it’s more Alex’s approach and handling of athletes.
Communication, knowledge, feedback, and who they are as a person. Because if you can’t build that relationship between yourself and your coach, it’s doomed to fail at some point.
What is the future of esports? Where would you like to be positioned as a coach and enthusiast?
I love the work Zada has done keeping everyone honest, and overall I think this is has made the most considerable progress.
The future of esports exists, that is for sure. It is already a UCI-recognized sport, with the Worlds being one of our biggest targets next year. I think things will get better and better over time.
I would love to see more stage racing, but I doubt it will happen as it requires so much work in the background, and for most, this is still a hobby after all, so it means time away from family and friends.
I would love to be at the forefront of esports and coach talented athletes as I do now. I love this job, and it brings me nothing but joy.
Where would you like to be positioned as an athlete and ambassador in the future of esports?
The current trajectory is awesome, and I hope that we can support it to keep it going in this way. Because this is how we grow the sport and expose more people, be the tide that raises all ships.
What does esports need to be recognized as a legitimate cycling and competition discipline? How can it promote incredible athletes and ambassadors for the sport, like James?
UCI has already done that, but I don’t think cyclists really recognize it as legitimate competition. To them, I´d like to say, go and try winning a high-level race and tell me if it´s not real competition.
To each their own, I feel. It is not IRL cycling, and you should not view it as such. As I said before, any high-level Zwift race is the most demanding 45-90 mins of a road race IRL. It is very far from easy.
Tactics also play a big part in setting you up for even contesting a win, and without proper training methods, fuelling, nutrition, you can´t do all that well.
Do you feel that you have will continue to improve and achieve more in esports? What will you do to ensure that it happens? How will Alex contribute to your success in the future?
I am sure there are lots to come. Alex keeps pushing me to improve myself. Pairing up with Alex, the sky is the limit. I put all my trust into the work he gives me and the knowledge he shares. I think my improvements and results speak for the work we have done together.
What should esports do to promote the athletes and put a name and face to the avatars?
What you at The ZOM are doing now is massive for growing exposure for esports athletes—helping the community to get to know the people behind the avatars. More and more people are streaming their rides, which helps people grow that relationship and get to know that person.
I stream all my riding over on Twitch (www.twitch.tv/barney_nz). The number of people streaming in the Zwift category has exploded in the past six months. It’s always great to see new users trying it out.
But otherwise, promotion is down to the individual athletes and how they position themselves in the community.
Zwift is doing a good job promoting the app and esports but should try and do more outside of the Premier League to present the faces behind the avatars and promote their hard work.
Many Thanks to Alex and James for their insight and sincerity. Good luck!
Do you have a coach and what difference does it make in your performance and cycling enjoyment ? Comment below. Your fellow virtual cyclist want to know.
You can find more great interviews like the one with James on the Esports page of The ZOM.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site. In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, http://www.TheDIRTDadFund.com. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.